Complaining about pay rates for freelance reporting and photography

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post.

Last night at our regular drinking get-together at Cotton’s Bar, about half-a-dozen of us expat journalists got together and complained about falling rates. Well, we also had a furious argument about whether the Economist was a real news magazine or not (my take: it tries to be, but I would give a grade of “F” because of its lack of sourcing, attribution, bylines, no error corrections, and total lack of readability).

It seems that photo journalists are in a worse boat than even us print reporters. Our rates for freelance pieces haven’t budget for the last fifty years. According to the National Writers Union, top rates for national magazines in the United States were about $1.00 per word in the 1950s — and still are.

This despite the fact that $1.00 buys a lot less now than it did back then.

For photo journalists, the rates haven’t just stayed the same as costs have gone up — they’ve actually dropped.

I think there are two forces at work:

1. More and more people are willing to do stuff for low pay or for free. As society gets richer, people have more time to devote to hobbies — after work or on weekends and holidays, for example. In addition, you’ve got students, housewives and househusbands, retirees, and people supported by trust funds, parent, spouses, government grants, and foundations.

These people, who are looking for self-expression, tend to focus their time on artistic endeavors. Unfortunately for us working stiffs, this often includes journalism and photography.

For those of us looking to make a career at this, the best bet is areas that people don’t want to write about for free. For example:

Kittens: People will write about for free.
Latest advances in veterinary billing practices: Not so much.

Politics: Oh, yeah. Everybody’s got an opinion.
Financial technology: Just watch their eyes glaze over.

Relationships: Everybody thinks they’re an expert.
Numbers: Nobody wants to write about things involving statistics. Good money here.

Consumer tech: Everybody has an iPod and an opinion about Microsoft.
Enterprise tech: Not too many people want to write about business mainframes.

There are two key differentiators between the first category of topics and the second.

The first differentiator is how appealing a topic is. Is it fun to write about? Do many people have opinions? Is it easy to get information?

The second differentiator is barriers to entry. In order to start writing about television, for example, you just have to watch some TV. In order to start writing about actuarial analysis models in the insurance industry, you have to learn something about actuarial analysis, maybe take some statistics courses, or at least get some related articles under your belt. It takes time to get into this beat. You have to start out by getting some training, attending some conferences, reading some books and subscribing to the industry journals. Then you’ll have to ease your way into it, writing articles that are more and more technical. As your articles get more technical, however, you’ll find that your word rates go up, and the number of competitors goes down.

Signing off in Shanghai,